One of the first romance novels I ever read was Mary Jo Putney’s One Perfect Rose. The hero, Stephen, is a duke. When the novel opens he’s just discovered that he’s dying from an unusual stomach ailment and decides to travel, anonymously, to see life before the end. As you might imagine, he doesn’t die in the end, but there is plenty of angst before that point.
The heroine, Rose, is part of a traveling theater company; she first sees Stephen out in the audience of one of their performances. Shortly afterward is their meeting, which to me instantly turned Stephen swoonworthy. A young boy from the troupe has fallen into a raging river. Stephen is frozen with fear and is not ready to die, but leaps in anyway and saves the boy’s life. He and Rose swiftly fall into liking and from there into love. It’s lovely to watch them discover each other, both before and after their hasty marriage.
But what made the book for me was the dark moment, or rather, the series of dark moments, given that the novel is about someone who truly believes he will only live a few more months.
The novel opens, in fact, with a major dark moment, when Stephen’s illness is first diagnosed.
The physician’s words hung in the air, stark and lethal as scorpions. Stephen…went still as he donned his shirt after the medical exam. Mentally he repeated the phrase, as if study would somehow alter its significance.
Mortally ill. He had known that something was wrong, but he had not expected… this.
…This might be his last summer.
He first hopes that the doctor is mistaken, then looks for factual answers, such as how long he might have to live. Soon, though, he begins to take practical steps, the most practical being that he doesn’t want to die in as prosaic a fashion as he, a Duke, has lived, always putting the estate before himself, suffering through a joyless marriage and always following the appropriate social rules.
My enjoyment of this novel was how Stephen chose to react to his own despair. Stephen has, before his diagnosis, lived a reasonably exemplary life, but he hasn’t truly lived in the sense of dancing in the rain and going bungee jumping. How he changes his own character, and how in so doing he finds the good in his own character, is the true deliciousness of this novel. Stephen is more admirable because of how bravely he faces his death.
It’s more rewarding to feel Stephen’s joy in living and in romance when he knows life will be cut short. Then, of course, things get worse, because once he’s embraced his limited lifespan, Stephen must admit to Rose that his illness isn’t temporary, and Rose must admit to herself that she is in love with him.
There was a long, long silence. She sensed that he was considering what lie would best mollify her…finally…he said in a raw whisper, “There’s nothing you or anyone can do.”
…“What do you mean?”
… In a barely audible voice, he said, “I’m dying.”
… The magnitude of her anguish revealed just how deeply she cared for him. She had denied that, even to herself, to mitigate the pain of inevitable loss.
But the pain of separation had been a mere shadow compared to this.
Joy and love and pain all mingle.
[Rose] realized that what she saw in his gray-green eyes was peace. Even a kind of happiness. The hidden fear and anger at his fate that had been part of him since they met were gone. For that she was deeply thankful. Yet she realized sadly that his acceptance of dying was another step away from her.
After all the dramatic ups and downs, Stephen’s discovery that he is not, after all, doomed is deeply satisfying. By the end, it’s obvious that love can sometimes truly conquer all, even the fear of death.
Victoria Janssen is the author of three novels and numerous short stories. Her novel The Moonlight Mistress is set during World War I, and she has a terrifying love of research about that period. Follow her on Twitter:@victoriajanssen or find out more at victoriajanssen.com.